The United States has placed sanctions on two of North Korea's most prominent officials behind its development of nuclear missiles.
The new steps are the latest in a campaign to force the country to abandon its weapons program aimed at developing atomic warheads capable of hitting the US.
The largely symbolic move will block any transactions by Kim Jong-sik and Ri Pyong-chol in the US, essentially freezing any American assets they may have. The U.S. Treasury said Kim was reportedly a major figure in North Korea’s efforts to switch its missile program from liquid to solid fuel, while Ri was reported to be a key official in its intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) development.
”Treasury is targeting leaders of North Korea’s ballistic missile programs, as part of our maximum pressure campaign to isolate (North Korea) and achieve a fully denuclearized Korean Peninsula,” Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin said in a statement.
The UN imposed new sanctions on the country last Friday in response to its ballistic missile tests.
North Korea said it was "an act of war" and tantamount to a total economic blockade.
With their ruling Workers Party, military and scientific credentials, the men are two of three top experts considered indispensable to North Korea’s rapidly developing weapons programs.
Photographs and television footage show that the men are clearly among North Korean leader Kim Jong Un’s favorites.
Their behaviour with him is noticeably different to other senior aides, most of whom bow and hold their hands over their mouths when speaking to the young leader.
The standoff between the Washington and Pyongyang has raised fears of a new conflict on the Korean peninsula which has remained in a technical state of war since the 1950-53 Korean War ended in an armistice, not a peace treaty.
The United States has said that all options, including military ones, are on the table in dealing with North Korea.
It says it prefers a diplomatic solution, but that North Korea has given no indication it is willing to discuss denuclearization.
On Tuesday, Russia reiterated an offer to act as mediator if the two countries were willing for it to play such a role.
“Russia’s readiness to clear the way for de-escalation is obvious,” Kremlin spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters.
Asked to comment on the offer, a spokesman for the U.S. State Department, Justin Higgins, said the United States “has the ability to communicate with North Korea through a variety of diplomatic channels”, and added:
“We want the North Korean regime to understand that there is a different path that it can choose, however it is up to North Korea to change course and return to credible negotiations.”